The black-and-white Mary thought experiment involves a brilliant neuroscientist growing up in a room where there is no color, only black and white. Despite, or perhaps because of, this limitation, Mary learns everything there is to know about color perception. She writes papers, she reads papers, and every single piece of knowledge about how color perception works ends up being devoured by her capable brain. Then, one day, Mary steps out of the black and white room and experiences color for the first time. The old question is, does she learn anything new? I first heard of this thought experiment during my time in graduate school for philosophy at Texas State University about ten years ago, but I’ve been recently re-introduced via Philip Goff’s book, Galileo’s Error. Right off the bat, I had a hard time understanding the problem for materialism that the black-and-white Mary thought experiment purports to demonstrate, but upon my recent re-reading I now have a well-founded response to the problem I noticed so long ago.
The issue with Mary is that materialism is not disproven if she learns something new because her brain is doing something different when it experiences the actual phenomenon of color perception - we even understand why this would be the case. Still, discarding most of the literature around this problem is likely the wisest course of action, as contemporary philosophers seem to miss the fundamental point that what Mary has learned is a big web of complicated abstract concepts which do not rewire her primary visual cortex or lead to her experiencing of colors on a firsthand basis. Unfortunately, this leaves us in much the same state as Philippa Foot’s old Trolley Problem - all of the useful content has been abstracted away and we are still posed the same problem, but without anything relevant upon which to base our decision. Still, we are informed that the experience of learning the things science knows about color experiences ought to be sufficient to actually replace a color experience - if Mary learns something new, materialism must be false because she is hypothesized to know everything about color experiences, which materialism is thought to not be able to account for.
Supposing that Mary does not learn anything new about color from her first encounter with it is problematic because it goes against the bottom-up cognition model that most of us think of as the rule for almost all sensory data integration. The extreme measures it would take to create a brilliant neuroscientific mind in a colorless environment notwithstanding, facts of the material interaction between mind and world tend to suggest that learning about a concept and learning the concept itself are two different things. In the former case, imagine a teacher in a sex education course in school explaining that the penis goes into the vagina and thinking that everything about a sexual experience is somehow contained in this basic description. In the latter, imagine participating in a sexual experience and attempting to describe it. The former case is a brain taking another brain’s abstract representation of the thing someone experienced and doing a generally bad job of recreating that experience via the process of description - there is an emotional layer, a layer of sense data, and a spirituality to the experience that is simply not adequately represented here. The latter is the act of compressing the experience to package it up for description so that other minds can participate in the recreation of it.
People who think through these issues should have little difficulty in understanding the nuance of the relationship between a particular conceptual package and the experience that inspired the individual to create it - always different; the conceptual package is a compressed version of the experience that inspired it. However, in the case of black-and-white Mary, philosophers seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between the neurally-mediated packaging and unpackaging operations involved in communication.
Mary has always been the receiver of packages other minds have created; she has experienced nothing pertaining to color herself and is therefore mainly an unpacker of concepts. We can imagine her excitement at the world of color, seeing it all for the first time must be quite stimulating for her! Perhaps she returns to her black and white room to write about this firsthand experience. The creative output here might in fact be quite good, but it still could never teach another black and white room dweller what it was like to have the first color experience to an arbitrary degree of precision because the language being used to package the experience compresses information, and some of the details get lost. Beyond this, memory sometimes presents facts incorrectly during recall, creating even greater difficulty for the materialists who so badly want to argue that Mary learns nothing new from her first color experience so that their position doesn’t collapse.
Frank Jackson, the progenitor of the black-and-white Mary thought experiment, later reversed his position to leave the anti-materialist school of thought behind and embrace materialism himself, perhaps for reasons along the lines of the argument laid out here (Alter, 2023). The primary change in the terrain is related to a newfound ability to use physicalism to account for perceptual novelties even along the unusual axis of discussion seen here. A materialist merely needs to explain the physical interaction Mary experiences with her environment when she sees color for the first time for the materialist position to withstand Jackson’s argument, and contemporary accounts of consciousness have no difficulty here.
What This Means for Panpsychism
If you’re following the logic of my argument, you have likely gleaned the insight that experiencing things firsthand and simply reading about them after someone else has experienced them and written about them are very, very different from one another. Physicists today love to argue that philosophy is irrelevant, and in the sense that the term philosophy denotes the work that happens in universities around issues such as free will, they aren’t wrong (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010; Daniel, 2018). However, the problem for philosophers and physicists alike is that none of them seem to realize that abstract descriptions are different from the things they describe. This conflation sounds absurd, but if you disagree with the core point I’ll put a word, dog, here and you can see if you can get it to play fetch with you. The problem seems to be that people don’t like to keep track of the ineffectiveness of language.
For panpsychism, as conscious beings, we have no option but to assume that panpsychism is true - everything we can possibly ever experience is directly related to our own consciousness. This means that if, say, there’s some other dimension of reality out there, and it has as its primary rule that it is imperceptible in terms of consciousness, we can never discover it - much less pay attention to it, even if we do find evidence of it in physics or elsewhere, because our attention is a primary driver of the function of our conscious thinking.
Instead of a brilliant neuroscientist in a black and white room, pretend you’re a conscious human being with a body that mediates the state of your consciousness in relation to your environment, providing you with access to whatever is going on around you.
Now, take as your primary assumption that anything you can be aware of is somehow touched by your consciousness. Perhaps an arbitrary object exists independently of whether or not you are able to be conscious of it, but in the event you do become conscious of it, it changes a bit. Hence, you are never able to become conscious of what the object is like independently of your consciousness of it. Try as you might, you cannot measure or observe it without flipping the switch and causing it to react to your consciousness of it. This seems to tie into the observer problem in physics, but doesn’t immediately seem to give rise to any contradiction with what we know from our studies of science or philosophy.
If this is the way the world is, panpsychism appears to be true. The touch of consciousness does, indeed, permeate all of the things that are observable in the universe; it’s simply everywhere we look. Even at the quantum level, our actions are met with reactions from things that seem external to and independent of us.
However, even given this fact, there is still a question here: what is the universe like, outside of consciousness? There could be any number of things going on with arbitrary properties, perhaps they even break the laws of physics, but conscious beings can never know about them because consciousness gets in the way no matter what they try to do to escape its gravitational pull.
The problem, for panpsychism, is that it is never possible to escape consciousness, if we assume the issue is to be investigated by conscious beings. That is, independently of our own consciousness, we cannot prove or disprove the claim that all matter is touched by consciousness. In fact, the statement that the entire universe is conscious takes away from the ability of researchers to distinguish between sorts of activity that go on in matter by eliminating the possibility that consciousness is a determinant feature of only certain sorts of objects and not others. A panpsychist has to distinguish between higher and lower consciousness levels to account for phenomena such as death, in which a body transitions from agency and knowledge at a high level to inertness with respect to these prior characteristics the same matter once possessed.
In return, the assumption that all things are conscious or touched somehow by consciousness provides a weak explanation that delivers no particular value with respect to knowledge of anything about the world. A more powerful explanation might be that the entire world, as we experience it, is mediated by the electromagnetic force. Consciousness is of the electromagnetic force, by the electromagnetic force, and for the electromagnetic force. And consciousness is not without its preferences - the senses, the aspects of reality these are attuned to, and the things these neglect: all of these are arbitrary, and evolution could perhaps unfold along a different dimension of the same physical world to yield entirely different results.
If we wish to build maximum extractable value for our scientific understanding of the universe, then, perhaps it is better to say that our conscious minds interact with the electromagnetic force in a way that collapses wave functions and superpositions, yielding a particular sort of arbitrary pattern. At least, in this case, we have a basic distinction between the operation and the operator that can allow for investigation of a specific, determinate phenomenon. In the classic dual slit experiment, the wave function collapses and the test result changes in accordance. I’ve made the case for a similar structure that exists in our linguistic representations of the world and their relationship to the things they represent - that is, incompleteness is a feature of this relationship between description and described phenomenon - and I believe that the materialist representation of contemporary neuroscience defeats the reductio ad absurdum that Jackson postulated.
For panpsychism, the question is the value of a term for the language of science. Since proposing that consciousness permeates the entire universe does not provide explanatory value and does not create empirically verifiable hypotheses, we know there are problems with it. But substituting ‘consciousness’ with ‘electromagnetic force’ seems to do two things that help us here: it returns the ability to distinguish between living and nonliving things in terms of their ability to make choices to modify the world around them and to self-perpetuate; and it denotes the thing the panpsychists are interested in, namely the electromagnetic force, which does permeate all matter regardless of basal or higher level consciousness, or the lack thereof.
- “The Knowledge Argument Against Physicalism,” by Torin Alter, the Internet Encyclopedia, https://iep.utm.edu/know-arg/#:~:text=But%20she%20spends%20her%20life,vision%20before%20leaving%20the%20room, ISSN 2161-0002, 11/22/2023.
- Daniel, T. D. (2018). Formal dialectics. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- Goff, P. (2019). Galileo's error: Foundations for a new science of consciousness.
- Hawking S. & Mlodinow L. (2010). The grand design. Bantam Books.